Sunday, March 28, 2010

"The Last Town on Earth" by Thomas Mullen

Summary: Commonwealth is a lumber mill town built on principles of community and fair treatment.  When the Spanish influenza ravages through the U.S. during World War I, the already isolated town decides to quarantine itself in hopes of avoiding the flu.  No one is allowed to enter or leave, and guards are posted to ensure the town's safety.  But shortly into the quarantine, a lone soldier begs to be admitted.  Graham, a young husband and father, shoots and kills the soldier rather than let him enter.  Also standing guard is Philip, the teenage adopted son of the mill owner, and he can't seem to recover from the shooting.  Soon Commonwealth is in more danger than they had imagined, and everyone is left wondering what is "right" in a time of disaster.

Musings: I received this book free at the NCTE conference and was drawn to its post-apocalyptic sounding title.  Although I enjoyed the book, I think the title is misleading, as there's no indication or fear of Commonwealth's permanent isolation.

Last Town effectively weaves together various historical events: the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I, and labor strikes.  It was interesting to see how the politics of each intersected within the characters to create conflict.  And, of course, many of these same conflicts are still in play today, from the hysteria over H1N1 to the debates over the purpose and righteousness of the war in Iraq.

Philip is the protagonist of the novel, and he has a lot of backstory.  I felt, at times, that there were too many pieces of his character that needed weaving together.  Nonetheless, he's someone to cheer for as he grapples with everything from decisions of morality to decisions of romance.

Graham, Philip's foil, has a similarly weighty history, but he's also less likeable and relateable.  Because of this, although each man represents different sides of difficult issues--family versus community, morality versus practicality--it's significantly easier to empathize with Philip.

Things go from bad to worse quickly in the novel, and I found the pervasive sadness difficult.  Even small moments of joy are quickly destroyed.  I kept holding out for an ending that would restore hope, but Mullen seemed insistent on ensuring that would be impossible.

I read little historical fiction and probably wouldn't have tried this except for the misleading title, but I think the issues it raises are so contemporary and the characters so fully fleshed that it's worth the read.

***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (T.B.R. category).

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